When I was 10 years old, my grandmother warned me not to play again with a neighborhood boy. She gave the impression that she knew something about him that I didn’t know. Apparently, my grandmother profiled this boy quickly just by his looks and his accent. After I grew older I realized that he belonged to a caste that was considered at that time not good enough for me to associate with.
On the first day of my school, the headmaster, a tall man with a slight humpback wearing the traditional Indian garb singled me out. With curious look, he said “you are going to get good grades at this school just like your uncles and your father.”
I pretended as if I didn’t hear and continue to fill the registration forms.
He repeated his statement.
“I will try,” I said in a timid voice.
“Be bold, I am sure you will,” the Headmaster was insistent in his expectations.
When I was young, almost everybody who had never met me before identified my caste just by my looks, mannerisms and the way I pronounced words. On the very first day in the classroom, my class teacher twisted my ears and said, “I know who you are.”
I felt like kicking him for pinching my ears painfully hard but then he was my teacher; I smiled instead, nodding my head up and down, a sign of docile agreement with his comment.
On the very first day on my job as a chemistry instructor, I was pretty nervous since it was my first assignment as a teacher in front of over 40 students. Somehow I managed the class to my satisfaction. A senior colleague congratulated my performance and commented that it was what he expected from people of my caste, as I fit into a pre-existing profile already implanted in his mind.
Several years later, thousands of miles away from my home in India, I was relaxing on Manzanilla beach in East Trinidad. The sand is coarse and black and the water cloudy with silt drained from the surrounding hillsides. The only attraction of the beach was coconut trees and tranquility. A black man walking pass me casually picked up a conversation and invariably ended up talking about cricket, a sport Trinidadians and other West Indians are crazy about.
“Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, make you guys tremble and piss in their pants, man,” he said.
Both Roberts and Holding were legends in fast bowling in the 70’s and truly scared the hell out of Indian cricketers at that time. But, how I came in to the picture, I thought. I was just laying down on the beach, which was deserted on that day.
“Yeah, Yeah, I know those guys are pretty fast, but what you think about Gavaskar, didn’t he scored a century against them?” I asked, jokingly. Gavaskar was a famous cricket player from India in 70’s.
“True, true man,” he shook his head, and slowly walked away leaving big footprints on the wet sand. I had been screened and profiled by this cricket enthusiast in a few minutes, that I was from India. I don’t think he meant to be rude in any way.
Travelling in a minivan in Jamaica is an experience one cannot forget. People without private cars travel in minivans operated privately by ruthless drivers and the conductors or hustlers who collect the fare and jam the van with the passengers. The drivers often let off the passengers on the roadside at any point in the trip without reaching their respective destinations if the passengers in the van were very few in order to make a profit. The driver would then make a “U” turn to the drive back to the starting point to load up with fresh passengers again. People who live in the countryside have no choice since there was no public transportation service, so they put up with this unscrupulous practice of dumping passengers by the private vans.
Once, I was caught up in a similar situation, I was the only passenger in the van, so the driver dropped me off in middle of no where and returned the fare I paid him initially for the full trip. It was a beautiful sunset with the sun slowly going down behind the tall sugarcane along the roadside. The smell of sugarcane crop was sweet and distinct in the fresh countryside air. I was anxious for another van to pick me up before it became too dark. Then, at a distance I saw a man walking towards me slowly. He was big with “dreadlock” hairstyle wearing only shorts and nothing else, not even shoes. I realized he was a “Rasta or Rastafarai”, a person who belongs to a local religious group, generally believes in non-violence and vegetarianism, though prone to smoke “ganja,” a local term for marijuana, to get high. As he walked closer, my mind was racing with so many “what if” possibilities. Physically he can maul me down but then I can outrun him as I am a light weight, though not sure in what direction and to where, since I didn’t see any houses nearby to take shelter or ask for help. While, these thoughts were storming my brain, the man walked closer to me with his head down and walked pass without even glancing at me. I saw he was soaked wet as if he had taken a bath in a near by stream. His figure got smaller and smaller as he walked away from me, I realized how timid I was and more importantly the way I profiled him as a threat. I am sure if that person was a woman or a man in decent clothing or a person with non-threatening looks, most likely my mind would have been at rest rather than contemplating how to escape from the potential danger.
Negril beach is one of the best beaches in Jamaica. A 7-mile stretch of white sandy beach on the west coast of Jamaica is mostly popular for American tourists. While living in Jamaica, my wife and I visited Negril beach on many occasions, mostly on weekends when we stayed at nearby hotels. During one of those visits, two or three American women in their early twenties were lying down on the sand in front of us. A local Jamaican man peddling “ganja” or marijuana came by to sit next the American women. He started his conversation with friendly gestures, and then offered them free samples of marijuana. The women were adamant at first in not accepting the free samples. He then lit up a marijuana cigarette and persuaded them to smoke and inhale to get a feel. He used all his charm to eventually make the women sample them. With reluctance they bought a few marijuana cigarettes just to get rid off him, perhaps. Then, he promised more good stuff that can be supplied to their hotel room and managed to get information where they were staying. I am not sure whether these women had smoked marijuana cigarettes before, but one thing was pretty sure, the man had profiled them from several people laying down on the beach to make his business deal. He never approached us though we were a few feet away along with several other visiting tourists lying down not far from the American women. The acumen of this man to pick his prey purely based on his instinct and profiling abilities on whom to strike to make a deal really amazed us.
My wife spent three years in Brooklyn while receiving residency medical training at a New York hospital. During that time, I stayed back in Dallas, my place of employment. I visited her during long weekends but kept our car in Dallas. I was fearful of allowing her to drive in New York given the hazardous roads and drivers. My wife fed up with taking the subway and buses demanded I should either deliver our old car to her in New York or she will buy one. I decided to drive our old car from Dallas to New York, a distance of around 1300 miles.
The trip was long and tiring, I overnighted in some towns on the way and started early in the morning to beat the morning rush hour city traffic. In Memphis, I got caught up in morning rush hour, bumper to bumper traffic. I realized a cop was following me for a while and then he pulled into a lane next to me, looked at me, then changed back to my lane, right back behind me and started flashing lights to pull me aside.
“Sir, you were driving a bit above the speed limit,” he said, glancing inside the car suspiciously.
“I am sorry, I didn’t realize officer,” I said nervously. It was the first time I was ever stopped by a cop.
“Where are you heading, I see you have a Texas license plate?”
“Heading for New York,” I said nervously.
“That’s a long way, can I check your trunk,” he said in a friendly southern voice.
“Sure,” I said, and opened the trunk for him to inspect.
“What’s in those plastic bags?”
“Some ‘curry’ and ‘massala’ powders used as spices.”
“Do you mind if I sniff a bit of a sample,” the cop was inquisitive.
“Please, go ahead,” I encouraged him.
“Man, this stuff is strong,” he said, sneezing non-stop. “You mean to say, you eat this,” he looked at me with disbelief.
“Yeah, we cook it with vegetables you know, we don’t inhale,” I said with friendly smile. I didn’t want to make the cop angry for his stupidity.
He closed the trunk and said, “I got suspicious when I saw a car with Texas license plate early during rush hour in Tennessee,” the cop was apologetic.
I realized then, why he pulled next to me while driving; just to look at me to get a physical profile before pulling me aside. I couldn’t have been driving above speed limit when the traffic was moving bumper to bumper in the early morning rush hour. He allowed me to go without writing any ticket, and kind enough to give information on the oncoming exit I should take, etc.
Several years later, I was waiting impatiently for a connecting flight at Indianapolis airport. “Do you know there are doctors from India working in Belize,” an old guy sitting next to me picked up a conversation with me in a haphazard way.
“Where is Belize,” I asked casually.
“Well, it is in Central America, I took a tropical rainforest expedition trip last year, I slipped and broke my ankle there, the doctor who fixed my ankle at the hospital said he was from India. He was good, I can tell you that.”
I didn’t know why this man brought up the subject.
“Your are a doctor, aren’t you?” he asked, rubbing his face softly with both of his palms as if he praying as Muslims do.
“No, I am in computers, information technology,” I lied.
“Oh yeah, I should have known this, I have seen scores of them too, these days.”
“ I was bit hesitant to continue to talk to this man, I thought he may ask me questions in computer technology.”
“Boy, your country produces, lots of doctors and engineers, then send off to every corner of the world to seek jobs, don’t they,” the old man yawned.
“I was getting weary of the subject matter, I thought of getting up and wander off.” Before I did, he got up and left walking towards the rest room. I took the opportunity and ran to sit between two ladies; both immersed in reading and showed no interest in their immediate surroundings.
Once I was in my office on Saturday to complete some unfinished reports, somebody knocked at the main door of the office building. I opened the door to find a man and a young woman with him.
“Are you the janitor?” he asked.
“What are you doing here on the weekend then?” He was polite in his enquiry.
“Well, I work here, and came to finish some work on a quiet day like this,” I identified who I was.
“Oh, I know you, we have spoken several times on the telephone,” he then introduced himself as one of the employees who worked for the same company but based in Canada.
“I brought my family here on a vacation and dropped in here to see if I bump into somebody,” he said before leaving.
After he left, I wondered about his impolite attitude. What made him jump to the conclusion so fast that I was a janitor, not that a janitor’s job is inferior. True, corporate staff does not work on Saturdays nor Sundays, but I was not wearing a janitor’s uniform nor was I carrying a mop or a broom in my hand. When I answered his first question, he realized who I was and changed his authoritative tone. Actually, in our company hierarchy, he was at a lower category than I was. I had the feeling that this fellow from Canada quickly sized me up purely based on my physical attributes. Had I been wearing my regular corporate dress code of jacket and tie, he would never dare asked the question.
My senior colleague at my place of employment invited me on many occasions to drop by his house on any weekend just on an informal basis. I never did take up that invitation seriously during the three or four years I worked with him, but on one Sunday I dropped by his house unannounced. His front door was ajar, so I called for him, and waited on his front porch. I heard his dog barking inside, his daughter came to the door to take a peek at me and ran back inside shouting “dad, some Mexican waiting outside, may be he wants to get a job to mow our lawn.” I heard my colleague trying to hush her voice. Incidentally, my colleague and his family came to America as refugees from a war-torn nation. My colleague’s daughter who never saw me before took a few seconds to define me and assign a possible job offer. Then I thought profiling is probably an inborn quality.
My wife and I invited our new neighbors for a dinner to get acquainted. I prepared my specialty “tandoory chicken” and “curry beef” and my wife prepared her specialty “massala rice.” They enjoyed the food and we had a good time. During the conversation, the neighbor’s wife, a former nurse mentioned that she was borne in South African and later migrated to Canada, and eventually ended up in the United States as an immigrant.
“We enjoyed the food and appreciated the invitation,” the man said in very friendly manner.
My wife and I reciprocated their friendly gestures. Just before they left our house,
the woman asked us “are you legal?”
For a few seconds, we didn’t understood what she meant.
“Yeah, we are legal tender,” I made a joke to lighten up the situation.
She smiled back and her husband appeared a little embarrassed for her wife’senquiry. After they left our house, we were dumbfounded by her remarks. If we understood her correctly, I think she asked whether we are living in the country legally or illegally. Obviously, she was curious, and perhaps thoughtless.
We profile others constantly; it is like sizing up the competitor in a game or sport. We use subtle profiling all the time either in selecting mates, making friendship at work and almost everywhere, perhaps it could be from fear of domination by others. Judging or profiling others purely based on their appearance and manners to denigrate or belittle others and conversely to place people on pedestal with high esteem is a serious downside of this incorporated human trait of profiling.